“We fled with nothing, empty-handed. We were only able to flee with the children who were with us when the attack was carried out,” says Ita Inosa, a woman from Baga, close to Lake Chad in Nigeria, who has been living in the Nigerian refugee camp Dar es Salaam for the past two years.
This is a story repeated for families throughout the camp, where makeshift tents made of plastic tarpaulin donated by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) hold a total of 5,800 Nigerians.
LISTEN to Part 1 of Nigerian refugees on the shores of Lake Chad, Chad
These people, mainly Hausa speakers, were fishermen and traders until Boko Haram attacked early in the morning of 3 January, 2015, near the Nigerian shores of Lake Chad, in Borno state.
Many believe that Doron Baga was attacked because of its proximity to a Nigerian army barracks in Malfo, only 6 kilometres away, says Nasiru Saidu, 36, a former resident of Doron Baga.
Some 2,000 Nigerians were killed in that attack, causing a mass exodus across the waters to Chadian islands in the lake.
Those who had fishing boats escaped, says Saidu, speaking under the shade of one of the few trees in Dar es Salaam camp. He fled with his family via boat to Kangalam, a Chadian island, where they stayed for a week before CENAR, the Chadian National Refugee Assistance agency, picked them up and brought them to the refugee camp.
His family avoided the anguish of looking for missing family members, because they managed to stay together, despite only escaping with the clothes they were wearing, like everyone else.
“Unfortunately, when there’s violence as people are fleeing, not all the family members are always together at the same time,” says Andréane Valeriote, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baga Sola, Chad.
The problem haunts 58-year-old former Baga resident Bilama Adam, whose sorrow is etched in his sad eyes and the deep furrows between his eyebrows. He lives in the refugee camp alone, waiting to hear news about his wife and seven children who eyewitnesses say were abducted by Boko Haram.
A neighbour’s two sons were near the shore of Lake Chad when they saw Boko Haram approach Adam’s wife and children. “The two boys ran and hid in the bush, and watched them kidnap my family,” he says, looking down at his hands folded on his lap.
That was two years ago. The only news he has had recently was from Maiduguri, a northeastern Nigerian city, frequently targeted by the Islamist militant group. “One man who escaped from Boko Haram seven months ago said that he saw my family with Boko Haram in a village,” he says.
The ICRC registers family members who are missing in the hopes of reuniting them with their loved ones. The Lake Chad region straddles the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger, making family searches a daunting task as the agency coordinates with governments in order to find those who have been lost.
Adam says he has registered his request with the ICRC and the governments of Chad and Nigeria and is waiting to hear back from them. He would like to go back to Nigeria to look for them, but “it’s still too dangerous.” Days after this interview, Boko Haram attacked a displaced people’s camp in Maiduguri, killing seven people.
Saidu, the fisherman, took the risk and went back to Doron Baga recently in the hope of finding something valuable in their house in Nigeria that could be used in the camp. He was disappointed. “The place is now black ash,” he says.
He didn’t take any photos either. “I want the children to forget about what has happened,” he says. “We don’t want them to have bad memories of their home that was burnt by insurgents. Because they will want revenge one day and we don’t want that.”
After crying at the site where his home once stood, Saidu came back to Dar es Salaam camp, photoless, and once again, empty handed.
The adults express their frustration about living in a refugee camp. While they are thankful for help from the UN refugee agency, and food distributions from World Food Programme, they are anxious to work, to provide for their families.
"Before we fled, we all had businesses, but now we're sitting here jobless," says women's representative Inosa. "That is our problem. Lack of employment," she adds.
On the other side of the camp, a number of children are gathered outside one of the tattered tents. News has spread that seven-year-old Musa*, who was lost or perhaps dead, has been found by the ICRC in a refugee camp in Niger.
The ICRC 4x4 pulls up with a shy, shaven-headed Musa wearing a brown sweat suit with the name “Messi” emblazoned on the front, referring to Lionel Messi. His father, Yusuf, overjoyed, gives him a quick hug and steers him to the mats outside their tent home. Ai’sha, his mother, is crying silently.
“I had no hope of finding my child. But I prayed to God that we would find my son. Then the ICRC intervened and found him, so I’m really happy,” says Yusuf.
They family hadn’t seen their son in nearly two years. “He’s grown!” laughs Yusuf.
LISTEN to the story of little Musa, a Nigerian refugee reunited with his family on the shores of Lake Chad, Chad
Yusuf says that the day of the Boko Haram attacks on their village, he told his two sons to stay at home. “I left to go get the vehicle to pick up my children,” he says. In the meantime, Musa, who was scared, ran off on his own.
“We didn’t know where he went. We thought he was killed,” says Yusuf. After settling in to the refugee camp, Ai’sha, Musa’s mother, made inquiries with ICRC to find her son.
“When I realised he was separated from us, I couldn’t rest. He was always in my thoughts, and I regularly cried at night,” she says.
After months of searching and inquiry, the ICRC found Musa, who had been living in a refugee camp in southern Niger with a neighbour. It was a long day that began at 6:00, said Valeriote, the ICRC head in Baga Sola, describing the drive to the Niger border to meet with officials and pick up little Musa.
“We had a meeting with the authorities to reassure them that everything is in order. Everything went well, and we met up with our colleagues around noon,” she says, and picked up not only the lost boy, but two other people who were found by the ICRC.
“I’m so happy because now I can hold him in my arms,” says Ai’sha, Musa’s mother.
*Names have been changed for privacy